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Radiant City

Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Digital Betacam/ Colour
Runtime: 86 min
Directors: Gary Burns, Jim Brown
Producers: Shirley Verycrusse, Bonnie Thompson
Writer: Gary Burns, Jim Brown
Cinematographer: Patrick McLaughlin
Editor: Jonathan Baltrusaitis
Sound: Igal Petal
Music: John Bissell, Natalie Baartz, Joey Santiago
Production Company: Burns Films Inc., National Film Board of Canada


Whether you call it sprawl or growth, the suburbs have been the dominant form of community planning in North America for more than fifty years. In their hybrid documentary Radiant City, Gary Burns and Jim Brown peer into the windows -- and lives – of those who call suburbia home.

The Moss family is one such household. The parents commute to the city for work, while their kids shuffle from school to gymnastics, to playing among the half-built homes of their community. Their micro-managed lives are mapped out on the kitchen whiteboard. The Mosses seem split on their suburban experience; Mon loves the safety and the big house; Dad is busy starring in local theatre productions; son and daughter feel isolated from their neighbours. The siblings share their own thoughts as they take us on an ironic tour of the neighbourhood’s wonders.

Suburban communities are examined and criticized by experts like the University of Toronto’s Mark Kingwell and author James Howard Kunstler. The legacy of the suburb is traced from the rise of the automobile to the arrival of the “new urbanists”, who look to pre-war models for designing future communities.

Yet Radiant City is more than a critical dissertation on the suburbs. Burns lends the movie his witty, satirical edge, crafting a film that’s informative, insightful and hilarious. Radiant City is his most direct confrontation yet with the suburban lifestyle and aesthetic; his familiarity with the landscape (he was raised in Westgate, a Calgary suburb) allows him to capture both its seductive allure and disenchanting realities. Burns and Brown tease the documentary form in new directions, mirroring the façade of the suburbs in their filmmaking. Cinematographer Patrick McLaughlin provides a vivid backdrop for Burns’ humour and Brown’s journalism, while Joey Santiago of The Pixies gives the film an added urgency with a grinding rock soundtrack. Like the identical streetscapes of a housing division, Radiant City hides secrets behind its glossy exterior which, once revealed, change not only how we view the ‘burbs, but also the movie itself.

Though Burns’ first foray into documentary filmmaking, Radiant City was his most successful and well received film after waydowntown. The film was nominated for best Canadian feature by the Toronto Film Critics Association; made TIFF’s annual Canada’s Top Ten list; and won the Genie for best documentary.

By: Jesse Wente